Episode 280: Beginner’s Guide to White Balance

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Greetings, you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 280. In today’s episode as I promised recently and have been asked about many times by photography students, A Beginner’s Guide to White Balance, what it is and how it affects your images.

Have you ever wondered why when you shoot indoors your subject turn out yellow or when you use your flash they seem to have a blue hue to them? Well, this is because of the white balance in your camera being off. Understanding white balance and how it affects your photography will help you make better images because setting your white balance incorrectly can ruin an otherwise beautiful image. When your white balance is off it can add all kinds of unwanted color casting into your images making your subject’s skin look odd like they have yellow fever or they are turning into a Smurf.

In today’s episode I will be talking about white balance and color temperature and I understand these topics can be scary ones to take on as a student or hobbyist photographer, but hopefully by the end of this episode you’ll be more comfortable with this topic and better equipped to make better images.

First off let me share a reality about photography and light, not all light is created equally. I am not talking about the quality of the light such as daylight vs continuous lights in your studio vs strobes, I am talking about the color of the light. The light your eyes see as white light from these different sources can actually have different colors, which are know as color temperatures. You may not have thought about it much in your life until recently when LED lights became more of the norm but ever notice how an older, incandescent bulb would cast a yellow hue on everything? That is due to its color temperature. 

Direct sunlight at noon is what is considered to be a “normal” color temperature and all light sources are compared to this standard. So as I mentioned a moment ago that old style bulb will appear more yellow or orange than sunlight and in the shade the light will appear more blue than direct, neutral sunlight. Now I am sure you are wondering, “How does all of this apply to photography?” Have you ever taken and image and then when you looked at it on your computer it was too orange or blue and yet when you looked at the scene with your eyes it appeared normal? That is because our brain adjusts what we see so we always see normal colors. If you ski or snowboard or snowmobile in the winter, try this experiment, put on your goggles and look at the snow and it will change color tone. If your goggles have a yellow tone to them the snow will look yellowish and if they have a blue tone to them the snow will look blueish in color, but after you have been wearing them for a bit, look at the snow again and you will see that your brain has compensated and the snow now appears white again. When you first take your goggles back off the snow will look blueish again until your brain compensates and then it will be the normal white once more. This little test also proves that our brains are part of a very sophisticated color system that automatically adjusts the colors in different lighting conditions, but your camera is not that sophisticated.

If the wrong white balance is used in camera, then our images look unnatural, with bad skin colors and weird color shifts as in the example below. 

As anyone can see the image on the left looks more natural with its colors and the Childs skin tones with no weird color casting happening, but the image on the right, everything in the images has a nasty orange color cast and the child looks like they have jaundice.

But what is color temperature? Well, let’s talk about that more right now. Color temperature is the measure of units in Kelvin (K) and is a physical property of light. There is an extremely large margin of variance between different light sources, even if they appear to the eye to be the same. An example of this would be maybe you’ve been in a room with rows of overhead fluorescent lights and noticed that there were bulbs that were a slightly different color than the others but you didn’t know why. They might have been older bulbs or possibly they were a different brand of bulb but they had a different color temperature than the rest of the bulbs. In the same respect, sunlight at high noon can have a different color temperature than sunlight at sunset or during sunrise.

Neutral color temperature, such as sunlight at noon measures between 5200-6000 Kelvin and you’ll find that most external flash units come from the factory set to that range as well, which means they are basically trying to mimic sunlight at noon. The incandescent bulb I mentioned earlier in this episode that produces warm or yellowish orange light has a color temperature of around 3000 Kelvin and shade, which is more blue has a color temperature of around 8000 Kelvin. Below I have included a chart in the show notes that gives you examples of different light sources and their normal range in Kelvin.

When talking about photography, things can get more difficult when the scene your are trying to photograph has multiple light sources with different color temperatures and this kind of situation is called “mixed lighting”. In this example you have both Daylight and Tungsten lights, which have a temperature of 2600 Kelvin.

In this scene from a wedding reception, there were chandeliers hanging overhead, but there was also direct sunlight coming into the room through windows. If you set your white balance for the Tungsten lights above, it causes the sunlight on the right to appear blueish and affects the table cloth and the flowers.

But it doesn’t end there because the same light source can have a different color temperature depending on the lighting conditions, so that will throw another wrench into the works so to speak. Look at the following two photos:

This first image was captured in sunlight with optimal “sunny” conditions with a white balance of 5500 Kelvin.

The second image was captured a few minutes later in the same sunlight, but it had become cloudy so now with the white balance of 5500 Kelvin, the colors look off. The second image was taken after the sun went behind a cloud and so you have more of a blue color cast in everything in the scene.

So, now that you know what color temperature is, white balance should be easier for you to tackle. As the name implies white balance balances the color temperature of your images. How does it do this you ask? It adds in the opposite color to the image in an attempt to make sure the color temperature is neutral, so instead of your whites appearing as blue or orange, they should appear white once the white balance adjustment has been applied. The nice thing is you can not only correct the white balance in camera, but also in most post processing apps as well. The majority of cameras on the market today come with the option to manually adjust the white balance. Most of the typical settings in your camera would be “sun”, “shade”, “tungsten”, and “fluorescent”. There are even some cameras that come with the option to manually set a color temperature by selecting a specific Kelvin value. Here are some examples: 

On the left hand side you can see how the orange in the light bulbs looks when the camera is set to a neutral white balance, but once it is changed to the color temperature of the bulbs, the image looks normal. Why, because the camera is cooling down the color temperature by adding blue into the image so its now the correct white, but you’ll notice the bokeh ball in the background is now blue. If you are still confused, take a look at the same scene shot during daylight.

The shot on the left looks normal as it is shot at cloudy sunlight with a white  balance of 5550 Kelvin. The one in the middle is cloudy sunlight with a setting of 3050 Kelvin and the one on the right is Tungsten light with a white balance of 5550 Kelvin.

Now, one of the nice things about digital photography is we don’t have to use white cards and color-cast removing filters to get accurate colors. If you shoot RAW as I do, then you can easily change the white balance in post processing software later such a Lightroom, Photoshop, or my preferred editor, Capture One Pro. This is because the original RAW file doesn’t contain any colors, the colors get added during the RAW conversion process. The great thing about this is if you do shoot RAW, you can totally ignore the white balance setting and do it later in post.

However, if you shoot JPEG instead and many do then you HAVE to get your white balance correct in camera when you shoot, because adjusting it later in post can have damaging effects on your images. Additionally, the colors will most likely never be right either if you try to adjust white balance in post when shooting JPEG. Most of the time your camera will do a decent job with the white balance and color temperature, but there will be situations where the camera is fooled and the images come out with a nasty color cast.

Because I do shoot RAW, I can just set my cameras to Auto White Balance and let the camera decide and if the camera is wrong I can easily change it in Capture One later without issues. Once I select the correct white balance in Capture One I can then easily sync the change to apply it to all my images in that shoot. So how do you change your white balance in camera? Well I have a sample screen shot from the X-T4 camera in the show notes. 

In almost all cameras the white balance can be set easily in the menu system and this applies to both mirrorless and DSLRs as well. There is also on most of these cameras a programmable button that can quickly change the white balance between the different settings. Next, let’s look at the various white balance settings that are present in most cameras.

Auto – Default white balance setting on most cameras and the one I use the most since I shoot RAW. In this mode the camera guesses the white balance depending on the ambient light in the scene and the use of flash. Some models of cameras have multiple Auto white balance settings depending on the shoot environment.

Incandescent (Light Bulb) – Use this setting only when under tungsten bulbs or if you image looks very blue.

Fluorscent – Use this setting if you photos look too green or when under fluorescent lights. Remember there are many different types of these lights and some cameras might have several of these modes as well.

Sunlight – This setting is used when you are shooting in direct sunlight at noon and the sunlight is shining on the subject.

Flash – Used when shooting with on-camera or off-camera flash units and speedlites.

Cloudy – You can use this setting when shooting in the shade or on a cloud, overcast day.

Shade – This setting is warmer than cloudy and adds orange colors to your scene, this setting is great for sunsets and shade.

Custom Setting – Let’s you manually set the color temperature by the Kelvin values, generally from 2,500 to 10,000 Kelvin

Preset – Used for matching using a white balance card or lens cap.

Remember the list above might be slightly different in your camera so this is only a reference list to look at. The best way to obtain the correct white balance is through Custom or Preset but you will need a white balance card also known as a grey card or 18% gray card. When looking through your camera menu for white balance you will see “Preset” (Nikon) or “Custom” (Canon) in my Fujifilm we have “K” which allows you to set the specific Kelvin setting.

When using a card, you have to hold it in front of the lens and the camera reads the light reflected off the card. With some cameras like Canon it will require you to take a photo of the card and it will save that file and you can use it for your Custom white balance. This is not a permanent change so anytime the lighting conditions change you will need a new custom white balance setting or test shot. To change the white balance in your post processing software it will look like this in the Lightroom Develop Module. 

Remember setting a specific white balance can only be done when shooting in RAW as in JPEG it can ruin the color of your images as you cannot make drastic changes to a JPEG.

So, now that you know the difference between color temperature and white balance, you can finally see the relationship between them and how they affect your images. But, because most photographers work with white balance settings, they sometimes get confused when you talk about color temperatures.

Many photographers choose to shoot at a fixed value of 5500 Kelvin as a way to kind of “hedge” their bets if you will. If you shoot incandescent lights indoors, everything will be orange/yellow but if you shoot RAW, no worries you can correct in post. If shooting in shade, it’s no problem to warm those blue images up more in post processing as well. After you have been thinking of color temperatures and using them for a while you will start to equate in your head that higher Kelvin values equate to warmer light and lower Kelvin values equate to cooler light.

If you use Auto White Balance in your camera then your colors will vary depending on the light you are shooting in. Also remember that mixed lighting will also give AWB a hard time as it will not know for sure which light to adjust for. Additionally, remember that in each camera system white balance capabilities will vary as well. Like any other technology, more recently made cameras will be more accurate than older cameras such as DSLRs vs Mirrorless.

Also remember that most all photo editing software has Auto White Balance capabilities as well. Whether you use Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or ON1 PhotoRAW they all allow you to set AWB after the fact.

Keep in mind that as a photographer we can decide what colors look more natural or pleasing to our eyes. What that can mean is that on some occasions you might want to test your “artistic license” to make an image look completely different by changing the white balance, especially for sunrise and sunset photos.

In conclusion, as long as you shoot RAW, knowing all the color temperature values and light sources is not extremely important, although it is still good to know. But if you are shooting JPEG all the time then hopefully this episode will help you make better images since you will now have a better understanding of white balance and color temperature.

Also be sure to join the Liam Photography Podcast Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/liamphotographypodcast/ You can reach the show by call or text @ 470-294-8191 to leave a comment or request a topic or guest for the show. Additionally you can email the show @ liam@liamphotographypodcast.com and find the show notes at http://www.liamphotographypodcast.com.

You can find my work @ https://www.liamphotography.net on and follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @liamphotoatl. If you like abandoned buildings and history, you can find my project @ http://www.forgottenpiecesofgeorgia.com. and http://www.forgottenpiecesofpennsylvania.com.

Please also stop by my Youtube channels Liam Photography

Forgotten Pieces of Georgia Project

Forgotten Pieces of Pennsylvania Project

References images borrowed from https://photographylife.com/definition/white-balance

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